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SpaceX wins confidence-boosting Falcon Heavy contract with U.S. Air Force

SpaceX has secured its first major national security contract for its Falcon Heavy rocket, seeing off competing bids from rivals that are believed to have included United Launch Alliance.

The contract for the deployment of a U.S. Air Force satellite is a big vote of confidence in SpaceX’s newest and most powerful rocket, which has so far launched only once.

The Air Force will pay SpaceX $130 million to put its classified Space Command-52 satellite into orbit, with the mission expected to launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida in 2020.

An Air Force statement said the the contract with SpaceX provides the government with “a total launch solution for this mission, which includes launch vehicle production, mission integration, and launch operations.”

SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell thanked the Air Force for certifying the Falcon Heavy and awarding it “this critically important mission,” adding, “SpaceX is pleased to continue offering the American taxpayer the most cost-effective, reliable launch services for vital national security space missions.”

What about the Falcon 9?

Although SpaceX’s tried and tested Falcon 9 rocket has been enjoying a successful run of missions — putting various satellites into orbit and launching cargo to the International Space Station — it’s unable to handle the weight of the hefty Space Command-52 satellite, prompting the Air Force to call upon the services of the more robust Falcon Heavy.

After its successful debut launch in February 2018, the Falcon Heavy become the world’s most powerful rocket in operation. Only the Saturn V rocket, which last flew in 1973, was more powerful.

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy comprises three Falcon 9 boosters whose total of 27 Merlin engines give it more than 5 million pounds of thrust at launch.

The Heavy is able to lift into orbit nearly 64 metric tons (141,000 pounds), a mass that SpaceX notes on its website is “greater than a 737 jetliner loaded with passengers, crew, luggage and fuel.” This is more than twice the payload of the next closest operational vehicle, the Delta IV Heavy, with missions achievable at one-third the cost, the company says.

Lower costs are possible partly because the Heavy’s first-stage boosters are capable of being landed, recovered, and reused.

Falcon Heavy’s next scheduled launch — its second to date — is Air Force’s Space Test Program Flight 2 scheduled for October, an experimental mission that will see the Heavy carry 25 small satellites into space.

It will also perform a satellite launch for a Saudi Arabian company toward the end of the year.

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